They say “write what you know.” Nicolas Winding Refn has clearly never followed that rule, or at least I hope he hasn’t, for his sake. ‘The Neon Demon’ features intense misogyny, rape, torture, murder, necrophilia and cannibalism, and its tone is so blasé that not once did I feel a thing for any victim in it. I just felt rage towards Refn, a filmmaker who, up until now, I admired.
I’m not going to apologize for spoiling that shocking stuff, because this movie doesn’t deserve the respect of keeping its secrets shrouded. It deserves to be put on main street and laughed at. It’s a prime example of pretension at its very worst. It wants to pretend it’s somehow smarter than its audience. Newsflash: if you’re a functioning human being who isn’t criminally insane, you’re 10,000% smarter than this garbage.
This movie is so unbelievably god-awful that I couldn’t even remember the protagonist’s name by the end of it. Elle Fanning plays Jesse (I had to look that up on IMDB), an aspiring model who has run away from home at 16 years old and constantly has to lie about her age to get work. A makeup artist named Ruby, played by Jena Malone (why are you here, Jena?), takes Jesse under her wing as she acclimates to the scene and realizes she may be destined for greatness.
For an hour or so, it’s at least halfway interesting. Watching Jesse come into her own is good fodder for a character study, even if Refn can’t help his male gaze. There are fleeting moments of craziness, but the story is grounded enough for that hour to make you want to see it stick its landing.
Then this thing really goes off the rails. Well, maybe “off the rails” isn’t right – this thing straps on a jet pack and shoots away from the station faster than you can say ‘Only God Forgives.’ Notice I referred to it as a “thing” and not a train. That’s because trains are cool and helpful, and I don’t want railroad workers to be offended.
Jesse somehow escapes the roach motel she had been living in for the first half of the movie (run by Keanu Reeves – again, why are you here?) and moves in with Ruby. She says she’s “housesitting” this palatial mansion, but given everything that follows, I wouldn’t be surprised if she murdered the original owners, burned their bodies to a crisp and used the ashes as soil for potted plants.
Ruby, who had seemed like Jesse’s only ally, proceeds to force herself on the child (again, she’s 16) and seems disgusted when she shoves her off. From here, we get the aforementioned necrophilia, torture, murder and cannibalism, none of it with any insight, motivation, or even humor.
I’m a huge fan of at least one controversial film this year: ‘Swiss Army Man.’ For those of you who haven’t heard of it, it’s about a man stranded on a deserted island whose savior comes in the form of a farting corpse. While I see that movie as a bizarrely beautiful construct created to explore genuine inconsistencies in the human condition, I understand that others find it downright offensive and gross. But even if you didn’t like it, I challenge you to watch ‘Swiss Army Man’ and ‘The Neon Demon’ back-to-back and then tell me you wouldn’t watch ‘Swiss Army Man’ every day if it meant you never had to think about ‘The Neon Demon’ ever again.
Refn isn’t an untalented filmmaker. Nor is he empty-headed, but you wouldn’t know it from watching this piece of trash. This movie doesn’t just offend, it puts its fingers into every orifice of your senses and dares you to look away. I imagine some of you reading this might ask, “Well, hasn’t the movie done its job if it offended you to this degree?” My answer would be, “Yes, but what the hell is the point?”
If I could say anything good about the second half of this film, it’s that the font of the credits reminded me of ‘A Bigger Splash’ from earlier this year, a film whose pleasures were similarly arch. But ‘The Neon Demon’ fails where ‘A Bigger Splash’ succeeds: I cared about the characters, however slimy, and they seemed like real people.
Refn’s film is total fantasy, and not the good kind with rings and dragons. It’s the fantasy of believing one has something insightful to say about the fashion industry and then finding out that the self-proclaimed emperor in fact has no clothes.
Leave the bad-boy stuff to Lars Von Trier, Nic. He’s better at it than you.
‘The Neon Demon’ = F
‘The Neon Demon’ is rated R for disturbing violent content, bloody images, graphic nudity, a scene of aberrant sexuality, and language.